Letter about Ascension

Letter about Ascension around 1900

The following is a letter posted on the Ascension Island mailing list by Brian Jenner of New Zealand.

Unfortunately, I've never been to the Island, but my grandfather told me lots about it over 50 years ago. It was there he met my grandmother. In 1997 on a visit to South African relatives I came into possession of a letter written by my grandmother's younger sister 30-40 years ago. It describes her arrival as a girl and life on Ascension between 1897 and 1899.
(They were sailing from St Helena via Cape Town to Ascension)

' On arriving at Ascension seas were rough as usual around the landing place due to high sea rollers, and we were hoisted up in a crane from a sort of barge. Dad (Chief E.R.A Thomas Flight) and several others in naval uniform were there to meet us and what a disappointment after the beautiful scenery of St Helena, walking along to our bungalow over rough clinker, not a tree or flower or even a blade of grass in sight. The house had 4 large rooms and kitchen, no sink but huge tank with tap. A long verandah. Toilet at the end. Land crabs scratched around night time out there at the doors and the native Sierra Leone boy Peter, salary 10/- weekly used to try and make the entrance outside the verandah attractive each morning by making fancy lines with the back of a broom in sand from the beach. We were not allowed on the beach after 6pm in case it disturbed catching the turtles'.

They (the turtles) came on the sand evening time. There were no native children or native women on the Island and all natives, including servants, were called in at 9pm by the sound of a bugle to sleep in their sort of barracks some distance from our quarters. The church opposite us was a nicely-built one and Naval Clergyman for Sunday services and opposite the entrance side was the Marine Barracks. Near this a canteen with long verandah and forms where the Marines used to go evening times, drinking beer or soft drinks in mugs. The other people were only allowed to buy one bottle of spirits each 10 days, but my Dad (CERA Tom Flight) was a T.T and non-smoker. Still he was popular with men on board ship with his banjo, guitar, and mandoline playing. He taught and composed music for each instrument and published them......He soon collected people on the Island that were musical and made an orchestra, sometimes going to the officers and captain's bungalow parties with them to play in the evenings, also concerts and dances. There was talent with some nice voices, though old-fashioned songs like "Queen of the Earth" etc. The dances were held in a large hall and gaily coloured bunting and flags decorating the walls. I was too young to attend and stayed home to mind my baby brother born on Ascension. A sentry used to walk up and down outside though we never had trouble - a police station was near but I can't remember any prisoners in it. Ships passed the Island or came in now and again but we never had the pleasure of going on board. Early morning a corporal walked up Cross Hill, where on the top was a flagstaff, and he pulled a flag up or down as the ships were coming in or out. The hill was exactly at the back of our house. What a great day the H.M.S Wye was to us each three months, bringing goods the people and Mum ordered from home. I fancy they were duty free. Sometimes we waited for new shoes having grown out of the old ones, and had to walk without.......that hot clinker ground was painful to hop about on. At our school there were 9 pupils, 5 boys and 4 girls. A sergeant and his wife taught us. There was one piano on the Island and I went weekly to the lady for lessons, then came home to practise scales and pieces on our dining room table and do you know I think it helped me in later life to be able to play so much from memory.'

I was told all our meat cows etc were sent out alive on HMS Wye. In those days there was no tinned fish, only sausages, bacon and butter; the latter the consistency of Olive Oil, all runny from the heat. The other buildings on the Island was a Library and Bakery, good bread made by one of the men. There was a fairly large hospital used mostly for patients brought in from ships to convalesce as nobody seemed to get ill on Ascension. A healthy place in spite of the heat. It rained only once in the 3 years we were there - with it a terrific thunderstorm. I've never seen one like it since. Some distance from the Garrison was a place called "Wideawake Fair" where sometimes on Sundays we went to collect birds' eggs- one of the men taking a huge galvanised bath to put the eggs in. Firstly he cracked many eggs on a patch already there and we waited some time to have new ones replaced to be sure they were fresh to take back, The eggs almost the size of a hen's egg - sort of light mauve coloured shell speckled with black spots. When fried a pink coloured yolk and tasted a bit fishy, in cakes the same. There were no chickens on the Island then, or Green Veges; or fruit unless at the Green Mountain which never came our way. Our drinking water was distilled, collected each morning and kept in a filter. There was one conveyance on the Island drawn by bulls or mules. Can't quite remember which as I only saw it twice when we went on holidays to stay at "Bartons Cottage" Green Mountain, I believe 7 miles from the Garrison. It took ages to get there. On the way at the bottom of the Green Mountain there was an old sailing boat - stood upside down and seats inside near a tank of drinking water with a chain and mug on. Letters painted on the boat "God be thanked tank". Bartons cottage was furnished and just kept for the Garrison people for hols: there were 2 bedrooms, a very large lounge dining room. The scenery outside was beautiful like St Helena. I think I told you in my letter before that there was only one civilian on the Island - a surveyor - living at Rock Cottage near Bartons. We left Ascension Island 1899 in the SS Avondale Castle & went all the way to England in the one ship. Sorry we did not call at St Helena this time. My Dad like Ascension so much that a few years after he asked permission to go again & went back, but without Mum or the boys. They had to go to school & my sister ( Ada, my grandmother - Brian) & I were married then. She married an artificer (William Jenner, my grandfather - Brian) met on Ascension Island much older than herself......( letter continues re other matters - 10 closely-written pages altogether).

Sequel: Ciss, the writer, married & went out to India about 1913 - stayed till after WW2, moved to (then) Southern Rhodesia to live with her only daughter, Freda & family. Died there in her early 80's. Descendants now in South Africa & Zimbabwe. Ada died in an air raid on Barrow-in-Furness, NW England in 1941, aged 55. Claude, the brother born on Ascension, joined Royal Navy at 16 (under age), was killed when his battleship, the Vanguard, blew up at Scapa Flow, 1917. Tom Flight, Ciss's father, later opened a music shop in Gillingham, Kent. He died in a drowning incident.

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